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I Try to be so Buddhist - Robert Sugg

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(personal narrative)

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Island of a Thousand Mirrors - Nayomi Munaweera

My Hungry Workers - Sourabh Gupta
(personal narrative)

The Stone - Anupam Choudhary

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(Translated by Bina Biswas)

Dr Bhikbab Changes His World - Sheela Jaywant

The Pillar of Society - Manju Kak

Book Reviews

Distant Traveller - Attia Hosain
(Mita Bose)

London Company - Farrukh Dhondy
(Rakhshanda Jalil)

The Cripple and His Talismans - Anosh Irani
(Mariam Karim)

Their Language of Love - Bapsi Sidhwa
(Arjun Raj Gaind)

Silk Fish Opium - Jaina Sanga
(Suneetha Balakrishnan)

The Blind Man's Garden - Nadeem Aslam
(Mariam Karim)

The Almond Tree - Michelle Corasanti
(Bina Biswas)

Nobody Can Love You More - Mayank Austen Soofi
(KG Sreenivas)

Along the Red River - Sabita Goswami
(Abdullah Khan)

Tales of a Journalist, Bureaucrat, Spy - Som Nath Dhar
(KG Sreenivas)

Che in Paona Bazaar - Kishalay Bhattacharjee
(S Ramesh)

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Poetry: Priya Sarukkai Chabria


Dilip Bobb

Book Review

Of Love, Apostasy and More

Silk Fish Opium: Jaina Sanga

– Suneetha Balakrishnan

Publisher: Tranquebar/Westland
Genre: Fiction
Extent: 336 pp
Price: Rs 295

In Jaina Sanga's debut novel, Silk Fish Opium, a seventeen year old beautiful girl, Rohini, reads English novels and sings gazals. She is in her first year of college, the degree to come a mere addition to her 'eligibility' as a bride. Her family has a prosperous business in silks. Then there is this twenty-year old young man, Hanif, from a middle-class family, a talented singer who hopes to make it like Rafi or Mukesh (in the later years). And this is Mumbai around 1947. What's more, the girl is a Hindu, the boy a Muslim, and they are in love.

Yester year Bollywood saga? Actually not, as the story moves forward with the Partition, the riots, and two young people who make a decision that changes lives, fortunes, and family ties. Jaina Sanga has managed to stay clear of clichés or beaten paths and penned a literary narrative on this premise. The story opens with a tense moment, at a funeral, a mock-funeral as we realize later on, and then moves on to romance, and soon weaves in conflicts of diverse nature. Conflict, palpable between people, interests, and ideas, sustains the steam on the constantly moving story-thread, across neighbourhoods and countries. And not once is the thread lost or wound up in knots.

The plot, which could have followed predictable lines but doesn't, never becomes stale. It's brilliant with sequences of music, the bitterness of politics, prudence of business, a simple richness of romance, and 'life' as people knew it in those days. There is a glimpse of what happens on the same lines across the border, how prejudices and roles are neatly reversed. Though Rohini finds her life unfair, it is actually a life she has only read about in her English novels. Both Rohini's and Hanif's lives become a study in attitudes, and how these attitudes contribute to success or failure.

Attitudes reflect elsewhere too. See how family fortunes are projected – they were built from silk, and seek link with similarly acquired and maintained wealth and prestige. Rohini's fiancé is the son of people who run a diamond business. But the fact that Rohini's forefathers once traded in opium on the side and made their millions is not to be mentioned at all, for obvious reasons. When one of the sons wants to enter the fishing business, it's waved away for the sake of prestige. Silks, diamonds and fishes don't go together. The title perhaps derives from all these elements: silk, fish, opium.

The ambience created is brilliant too. The clothes, cuisine, entertainment, the politics or popular subjects of the times, even the campus, are so period-Mumbai. The narrative has a gentle flow even when violence and stress rule the scenes. The events that unfold into major catastrophes show the voice of a narrator who is detached yet concerned about the incidents. There are a fair number of characters that take the story forward on their shoulders, yet there is never a problem of plenty.

The author's pen is also deft in its sketches, but with a slight edge towards stereotypes; look at the sketches of Rohini's and Hanif's parents, and Rohini's brothers, especially Srikanth. Plotting skills perhaps overshadow skills of characterization here. One wishes that Srikanth had a convincing personality of his own, instead of being a brother who looks like an honour killer or a right-wing goon.

The transformation of Rohini to Rezana could have done with more ink. The reader needs to be convinced not just about the reasons behind apostasy but also the processes. Rohini's odyssey as Rezana and her trials post-apostasy are drawn in subtle shades, perhaps intentionally, to prevent slipping into emotional drama. Still, the reader is tempted to turn page after page, not very fast of course, but definitely till the characters bid adieu with the flourish of a handkerchief.

Interesting premise, fine execution and a good pace – that's good enough for a debut which promises more to come.